This article contains I Care a Lot spoilers.
It’s an emotionally fraught conclusion. Before our very eyes, I Care a Lot’s protagonist—its ostensible hero—is bleeding out inside an asphalt parking lot. But then, was she or anyone else ever a hero in this story? Just seconds before she was gunned down, Rosamund Pike’s Marla Grayson is seen, smilingly lying about how great her new predatory company is, and how she’s figured out a way to turn elder abuse into a sanitized illusion of “eldercare.”
She is a monster with a sunshine smile.
By contrast, the man who waits outside an unnamed cable network with a gun is clearly a hard to like individual. With his long unkempt beard and red baseball cap—technically for a sports team instead of a political cause—Mr. Feldstrom (Macon Blair) resembles a collection of unsavory stereotypes and clichés. Earlier in the movie, Marla called him a sexist, and he reconfirms it again here by addressing Marla as simply “you fucking bitch.” With strong undercurrents of misogyny, Feldstrom is slaughtering a successful woman… yet honestly it is hard to imagine anyone having much sympathy for her.
If you don’t recall the full details, we actually met Feldstrom before Marla at the beginning of the movie. While we hear Ms. Grayson’s ruthless “greed is good” rhetoric in voiceover during the film’s opening moments, the images we’re primarily seeing are of Blair’s Feldstrom attempting to forcefully enter a nursing home and being restrained by security.
We learn in the subsequent court hearing that he is a son who’s even been denied access to visit his own mother, much less having a say in how her court appointed professional guardian, Pike’s pitiless Marla, spends his mother’s money while selling off her possessions.
“Mr. Feldstrom, I sympathize,” Marla says with dripping condescension. “A doctor diagnosed your mother with dementia and wrote a note recommending immediate action to be taken for her safety.” She goes on to add that Feldstrom had ample opportunity to move his mother into a care facility or his own home. He did neither. Now Marla must keep him away because “your visits upset her.”
It’s bleak reptilian logic she uses, and chillingly it convinces the judge. Feldstrom is once again denied access to see his mother, much less help her, while Marla keeps squeezing mom’s assets for income. As she said in the initial voice over, “I’ve been poor. It doesn’t agree with me.” So she’ll let poor bastards like Feldstrom live in a nightmare.
This doesn’t negate the awfulness of Feldstrom, who in the film’s opening salvo also repellently says, “I hope you get raped and I hope you get murdered… you fucking fucker.” But both I Care a Lot’s greatest strengths and weaknesses lie in how unpleasantly thorny every character is.
Technically, Marla is right to pick up that Feldstrom doubly hates her for being a woman, but she is no heroine in her own story. Rather she’s as despicable an anti-hero as you’re likely to find in a crime drama or movie about the debaucheries of high-finance crooks. She’s as greedy as Gordon Gekko or Jordan Belfort, and as shamelessly ambitious as Tony Montana.
She is the personification of the bottomless appetite of American capitalism, and she is so unflinching in her avarice that she can win over other sharks who recognize a fellow predator.
Take for instance Peter Dinklage’s Russian mob boss, Roman Lunyov, who has every reason to hate Marla Grayson. Like Feldstrom, Roman is a son whose mother is being kept against her will; a victim preyed on by a vulture who is keeping her isolated and even overmedicated as a form of torture. When Roman encounters this, his first instinct like Feldstrom is to handle her cleanly through the courts, albeit first via bribes from his high-priced lawyer. When that fails, however, Roman is quick to switch to a plan that will put Marla six feet under.
Yet when push comes to shove—and Marla is pushing to lock Roman away in an institution for the rest of his life—the mobster recognizes the financial brilliance in Marla’s scheme of turning the elderly into cash cows. Believe it or not, it’s something that happens in the real world with predatory professional guardians, and it’s something an amoral mob boss can find ways to monetize and wet his beak in.
I imagine some viewers were torn between who they were rooting for: Roman or Marla. Both are Great Whites gliding beneath a glassy surface, and both have reason to disdain the other. Yet the real appeal of the I Care a Lot ending is how it comments on the worship of money and success. Both Marla and Roman have climbed high in their chosen rackets, and cannot help but admire the other’s tenacity. Together they’ll climb higher still, leaving many other elderly folks harmed and hurting—and without a son like Roman who can leverage his power to bail them out, even if at a proverbial gunpoint.
But Marla and Feldstrom? They’re not equals or even on the same playing field. Marla surmises at the beginning of the movie that you’re either lion or lamb, predator or prey. She fed on Feldstrom and his mother until there were only scraps of bone left. And I Care a Lot’s real final conflict is about how long that power dynamic can last until the whole system collapses. It did for Marla.
Before her death, Marla’s being celebrated on cable TV for joining the one percent. When asked if she’s finally happy—if her thirst for wealth has been sated—she answers, “Peter, I’m just getting started.” Even though she can do anything she wants now, as she also tells girlfriend Fran (Eiza González) in her actual final words, the only thing she wants is more. And the fallout of such unfettered hunger is epitomized by the relatively unsavory man she stepped on at the beginning of the film. The guy everyone forgot about, including probably you. But unpleasant though he may be, his pain is real, and as he reveals while shooting Marla, his mother died alone in that nursing home/prison, without being able to see her son one final time.
“She fucking died in there alone,” the gunman whines.
It’s a horrible fate for an unseen victim, one of many, who’s suffering paid for Marla’s televised victory lap. And as she bleeds out, we’re asked to more than judge her. Before the movie even started, Marla was a lost cause of a human being. But what she represents as an idea is more sinister, and enduring. If left unchecked, that greed which made her a “lioness” will lead to only greater bloodletting between lions and lambs.